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Bob Perkins Reflects On His Old Friend, Jazz Legend Jimmy Heath

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John Lamparski/Getty Images
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Jimmy Heath at The Apollo Theater in 2016

When I was a kid growing up in South Philly, there was an older fellow down the block who was trying to play an alto saxophone. He wasn't doing well at it.

I wondered, and the neighbors probably did as well, if he'd ever make it as a musician.

Well, in later years, Jimmy Heath made many of the doubting Thomases eat our suppositions about his future, as he went on to become a legendary musician, arranger, composer, and bandleader. In fact, not only did he acquire such status in the jazz genre, his two brothers, Percy and Albert (Tootie), became known to the world for their music process.

The Heath family moved from the 1900 block of Gerritt Street and took residence just several blocks away, and I lost touch with them as the family—especially the trio of brothers-—began to firmly establish themselves in the music industry.

But I'd heard about Jimmy fronting a band of local musicians. It included the likes of John Coltrane, Benny Golson, Johnny Coles, Ray Bryant, and others who were attempting to build a name to fame. As time passed, Jimmy went to bolster his career by developing his sound on the alto and tenor horn, and even included flute.

He ran into trouble for a spell with drugs and served time in prison, but kicked the habit, and while in prison he used the time to further perfect his arranging skills. He married for a second time upon his release, and that union lasted for 50 years...until Jimmy passed on January 19th at the age of 93.

But before his passing, he became Professor Heath at Queen's College in New York, and helped the school set up its jazz studies program. Quite a feat for one who had no university degree, but who nonetheless held the talent. Percy, Jimmy's older brother, former bassist with the Modern Jazz Quartet, passed in 2005. Jimmy's younger brother, "Tootie," is still making music.

Jimmy authored a book titled I Walked With Giants, somewhat alluding to his diminutive size (he was 5'3" tall) that he, too, was full-size, musically.

Some jazz promoters knew I knew a few things about the Heaths, so they would ask me to bring them on stage when they were appearing in the region. It was always good to see them and go over old times. They would often tease me about a run-in I had with a funeral director's big LaSalle auto, which clipped me under the chin when playing tops with Jimmy's brother "Tootie" one Sunday morning years ago on Gerritt Street. Good thing it only clipped me. I was no match for that LaSalle.

Just some notes here from Ol' BP about Jimmy Heath. Maybe after reading, you'll buy his book and get the full story. Check out this deep-dive interview with Jimmy Heath about his book.